Colombian Americans

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Author: Pamela Sturner
Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
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Colombian Americans

Pamela Sturner


Colombian Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from Colombia, a country in the northwest corner of South America. Colombia is bound by the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west and shares terrestrial borders with the countries of Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Panama. Colombia is the only country in South America with both Caribbean and Pacific coasts, and the country's Point Gallinas is the northernmost tip of the South American mainland. The central region of Colombia is home to most of its population and is dominated by the Andes Mountains, which form three ranges that run the length of the country. The eastern plains, or llanos, account for 60 percent of Colombia's territory and are sparsely populated, as are the coastal lowlands. To the southeast lie undeveloped tropical rainforests of the Amazon basin. With an area of 439,735 square miles (1,138,914 square kilometers), Colombia is about three times the size of the state of Montana.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Colombia's highly diverse population numbered 45.2 million in 2012 and was made up of at least 15 distinct cultural and regional groups. About 65 percent of the population lives in urban areas, including the country's four largest cities: Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla. Major ethnic groups include descendants of Indians, who are concentrated in the Andes and were known as Amerindians; persons of solely European descent, who have traditionally held most of the country's wealth and power and account for less than 20 percent of the population; costeños, persons of mixed African, Indian, and Spanish descent living primarily on the coasts; and mestizos, or persons of Indian and Spanish descent, who account for about 58 percent of the population. Most Colombian Americans are Roman Catholic, but a small number are Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu. After years of political and social unrest, Colombia's economic policies and promotion of free trade have fostered almost a decade of strong economic performance, according to the CIA World Factbook. However, Colombia's 10.8 percent unemployment rate in 2011 was one of the region's highest, and about one-third of the population reportedly still lives in poverty.

Colombians began to immigrate to the United States in notable numbers after World War I, and many of them settled in middle-class neighborhoods of New York City while working in professional fields such as nursing and accounting. Despite the introduction of more stringent immigration laws during the second half of the twentieth century, the population of Colombian Americans continued to grow, and by the 1960s and 1970s many skilled and semiskilled laborers had joined professionals among the new arrivals. Beginning in the 1980s, the escalating violence and political upheaval associated with Colombia's booming illegal narcotics industry spurred locals to emigrate in even larger numbers, and immigrants to the United States included both documented and undocumented persons as well as persons seeking political asylum. This trend persisted throughout the 1990s and early twenty-first century, because the country continued to be plagued by the effects of drug trafficking and clashes between governmental forces and guerrilla groups.

The 2010 U.S. Census reported 908,734 Colombians living in the United States, making them the largest South American immigrant group in country. Some estimates (which include undocumented arrivals) speculate that the actual population may exceed two million. Throughout their history in the United States, Colombian Americans have worked to create their own identity within the Hispanic population while also finding a place in mainstream American culture. Unfortunately, stereotypes linking them with drug trafficking and organized crime continue, despite the fact very few Colombian Americans engage in criminal activity. During the past two decades, overcrowding, the increasing cost of living, and safety issues have prompted many Colombian Americans to leave large urban areas for suburban areas, though large communities still exist in major U.S. cities such as Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington DC.


Early History Indigenous peoples such as the Muisca, Quimbaya, and Tairona likely built hunter-gatherer societies in present-day Colombia as early as 10,000 BCE. Because of its location at the northernmost tip of South America, historians believe that the Page 520  |  Top of Articleland served as a natural corridor for nomadic tribes migrating between Mesoamerica, the Andes, and the Amazon, and their civilizations grew to occupy much of the Andean interior prior to the arrival of Europeans at the end of the fifteenth century. Christopher Columbus probably explored the mouth of the Orinoco River in 1498. Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda led another expedition in 1509, and in 1525 the first Spanish city (Santa Marta) was founded on the Caribbean coast. In 1536 the conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada sailed up the Magdalena River in search of the mythical city of El Dorado and, after defeating the indigenous Chibcha people, founded Bogotá in 1538.

During the years of the Spanish Main, the Caribbean port city of Cartagena (founded in 1533) was a point of departure for shipments of gold and other minerals bound for Spain. The Spanish relied increasingly on the labor of slaves to maintain the expanding colony, and Colombia soon had one of the largest African populations on the continent. After 1740 the colony formed the center of New Granada, a territory that included the greater part of what is now Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela. A movement for independence from Spain began in 1810, and in 1812 the territory came under the direction of Venezuelan military and political leader Simón Bolívar. Bolívar waged a series of campaigns that ended with the surrender of the Spanish in 1819. He renamed the territory Greater Colombia. Political differences led Venezuela to secede in 1829, followed by Ecuador in 1830.

Modern Era The 1830s were marked by the rise of the Partido Conservador and the Partido Liberal as the most powerful rivals in national politics. Their struggles fueled unrest throughout the century and resulted in a civil war from 1899 to 1902 that left 100,000 dead and brought the Conservatives to power. In 1902 crisis beset the country again when the United States seized the part of the country where the Panama Canal was being built. After rejecting a treaty that would establish American control, the Colombian government sent troops to Panama. The ensuing clash with the United States and U.S.-supported local forces resulted in Colombia's defeat, and Panama was created as an independent country in 1903. In the following year, a dictatorial regime and ushered in more than four decades of peace in Colombia. However, hostilities between the Liberals and Conservatives led, beginning in 1948, to civil war and a decade of political unrest known as “La Violencia” (The Violence). Between 200,000 and 300,000 inhabitants were killed, and large portions of the population were displaced, with rural populations forced into larger urban centers. In 1958, after the military dictatorship (1953–1957) of Rojas Pinilla, Liberals and the dictatorship Conservatives formed a coalition government known as the National Front, and under its leadership the country began its recovery from the lengthy war.

Since the 1960s, attempts have been made to address long-standing social, political, and economic problems in Colombia. Under the presidency (1966–1970) of Carlos Lleras Restrepo, inflation slowed, the economy was diversified, and land reforms were instituted. After a period of gradual transition toward full democracy, the government of the National Front ended with the elections held in 1974. Extreme disparity between the wealthy and the poor contributed to widespread disillusionment that kindled a Marxist guerrilla movement dedicated to revolution. Social problems worsened as the birth rate rose and farmers displaced by new technology moved to the cities, where they found their skills inapplicable in an industrial economy. During the 1980s, producers of illegal drugs flourished, banded together in cartels, and threatened the country's political and social stability through campaigns of bombings, abductions, murders, and the assassinations of officials, judges, and newspaper editors. Undocumented immigration to the United States and Venezuela increased, and in the mid-1980s an era of steady economic growth came to a close as Colombia's economy stagnated under the weight of foreign debt.

In the face of an escalating social and political crisis, President Virgilio Barco Vargas launched a campaign in 1989 to suppress the illegal drug trade, which resulted in hundreds of arrests, the confiscation of property worth millions of dollars, and violent retaliations by the cartels. Several presidential candidates were assassinated before the election of 1990, but victory nonetheless went to César Gaviria Trujillo, a well-known opponent of the drug trade. During his first years in office, Gaviria sought to restore the population's faith in the government by pursuing an aggressive policy against the cartels, encouraging the formation of new political parties, and offering a role in national affairs to Indians and former guerrillas. Agreements reached with foreign creditors eased the burden of debt, allowing Colombia to achieve a trade surplus, and during the 1990s negotiations began for new trade arrangements with other countries.

The ratification of a new Colombian constitution in 1991 was hailed by human rights advocates for its reforms on political, ethnic, and gender issues. Unfortunately, political turmoil and the effects of the drug trade continued to haunt the nation in the 1990s, and Marxist revolutionary groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army intensified campaigns of terror against the government, the military, the Roman Catholic Church, and civilians.

Although armed conflict with drug traffickers and rebel groups continued into the twenty-first century, sharp declines in the country's murder and kidnapping rates were reported from 2002 to 2010. Coinciding with the term of President Álvaro Uribe and with support from the United States, these improvements ushered in a period of increased stability, economic growth,

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and tourism in Colombia. By 2012 the country had become South America's fourth-largest producer of petroleum, had served as a member of the UN Security Council, and was working to build better relationships with its neighbors and trade partners around the world.


The first Colombian immigrants were probably among the few South Americans who settled in the United States during the nineteenth century (the federal census did not specify the country of origin for South Americans until 1960). Little is known about these settlers, who maintained no ties with their native countries, and within a few generations identified themselves only as Americans. The first Colombian community formed when several hundred professionals, including nurses, accountants, laboratory technicians, pharmacists, and bilingual secretaries, moved to New York City after World War I. The population was augmented by students who stayed on in the United States after earning professional degrees. Most Colombian immigrants made their homes in Jackson Heights, a middle-class neighborhood in Queens (New York City) that was attractive for its proximity to employment in Manhattan and for its churches, comfortable houses, large yards, and fine schools. Known by residents as “El Chapinerito” (after Chapinero, a middle-class suburb of Bogotá), the neighborhood did not grow much until the 1940s, when New York City and Venezuela surpassed Panama in popularity as destinations among Colombian emigrants.

The number of Colombians entering the United States each year increased only slightly until the early 1950s, when it rose from a few hundred to more than a thousand, owing in part to upheaval associated with the civil war of 1948. The rate did not decline with the restoration of civil order in Colombia. As a result of land reforms and the introduction of agricultural machinery during the 1960s, the population became concentrated in the metropolitan areas and a deep economic recession set in, forcing many Colombians to leave the country in search of work. The number that settled in the United States continued to grow rapidly; according to the annual reports of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 116,444 Colombians entered the country between 1960 and 1977, the first large influx driven by purely economic reasons. These immigrants were far more racially and economically diverse than their predecessors, and with their admittance, skilled and semiskilled laborers gradually displaced professionals as the majority.

In the postwar years, Colombian Americans were among the groups at the center of a national political debate about immigration, which reached a peak when immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America outnumbered those from Europe. Calls for stricter controls culminated in the Immigration Act of 1965, after which only 120,000 visas were to be reserved annually. Page 522  |  Top of ArticleThe law also sought to bar entry to all but the most needed and highly qualified workers, including professionals, technicians, and domestic servants. These measures presented a host of obstacles for Colombian Americans. The quota was so small relative to demand that families could wait 20 months for permission to be reunited. Pressure on the allotted visas was further exacerbated by unemployment and underemployment in Colombia, which escalated to between 20 and 25 percent by the mid-1970s. Patterns of settlement changed as a result of these conditions. In part because they had little hope of establishing legal residency, most Colombians who arrived after the mid-1960s planned to stay in the United States only temporarily. As a result, the rate of undocumented immigration soared: estimates of those living in the country without permanent residency status ranged from 250,000 to 350,000 in the mid-1970s. Discouraged by the law, some immigrants settled in Ecuador, which in 1973 had a Colombian population of 60,000.

Despite a succession of stringent immigration laws, the Colombian population in the United States continued to grow. New York remained the most popular destination. Those who could afford to do so moved to Jackson Heights, but other Colombian neighborhoods developed in nearby Corona, Elmhurst, Woodside, Rego Park, and Flushing. Smaller communities formed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and Washington DC. During the 1970s, an enclave of a few thousand professionals developed on the North Side of Chicago. After the late 1970s, many Colombians chose to settle in Miami, which they found attractive for its climate, growing economy, and tradition of tolerance dating from the establishment of a Cuban community there. Initially they took up residence in Little Havana, the largest Cuban neighborhood, and many engaged in business related to the brisk trade between Miami and Latin America; a few worked in factories or as domestic servants. The area also became a haven for the wealthy, who moved there to receive medical care, send their children to school, and escape from social, economic, and political turmoil in Colombia. By 1987 Colombian Americans were one of the fastest-growing Latin American groups in Miami.

By the early 1990s overcrowding, crime, and the high cost of urban living led Colombian Americans to begin leaving metropolitan centers for the suburbs. This trend was perhaps first noticed in the coastal towns of Connecticut and New York, where, since the 1980s, many Colombian Americans and other Latin Americans have taken jobs in service industries left unfilled by the local population. A better choice of housing, which was much more affordable in these towns than in New York City, was also available. Enclaves in Connecticut (such as Stamford) and northern New Jersey (including Englewood, Victory Gardens, and the Bergenline Avenue district) grew during these years. Jacksonville and such suburbs as Kendall, Florida, attracted a growing number from Miami. Skokie, Evanston, Arlington Heights, and Park Ridge, Illinois, became fashionable alternatives to the North Side of Chicago. Nevertheless, the largest concentrations remained in Miami, New York City, and their environs: in 2008 there were 97,580 Colombian Americans in New York City (mainly in Queens) and in 2010 there were 114,701 in Dade County, Florida.

With other immigrants from developing countries, Colombian Americans faced serious obstacles to achieving success in the United States. As American society became more technologically advanced, much of the work traditionally performed by immigrants disappeared, leaving only dangerous, undesirable, poorly paid positions that offered no health care benefits and little promise for the future. Language was a definitive barrier against advancement, as most Colombian Americans lacked proficiency in English and the opportunity to gain it. Those living in cities often inherited abandoned neighborhoods, substandard schools, and a crumbling infrastructure. Perhaps the most pressing issue was the rising tide of hostility toward immigrants, especially Latin Americans and Asians, that swept the country on the heels of the economic recession during the late 1980s and early 1990s. After years of being virtually ignored by the larger society, Colombian Americans found themselves a target for American resentment over problems ranging from drug-related crime to a decline in the standard of living. According to the federal Census Bureau, 43,891 Colombians were admitted to the United States in 1990 and 1991, more than from any other South American country. They also accounted for the third-largest group of undocumented immigrants (after those from Mexico and Central America). The influx continued through the 1990s as guerrilla violence in Colombia escalated. Between 1992 and 1997, nearly 75,000 Colombians immigrated to the United States, with many settling in California. Such statistics figured prominently in debates about the effects of immigration, both legal and illegal, on the economy and even on society itself.

Colombian Americans were also subject to concern about the growth of the Latino population, which was perceived as a threat by those who considered immigrants, particularly the undocumented, an economic burden and resented Latinos' efforts to preserve their language and culture within American society. Such sentiments fueled a political backlash against immigrants that led to the passage of Proposition 187 by California voters in 1994. The law denied health care, education, and other services to undocumented immigrants. A federal appeals court ruled most of the measure unconstitutional and in 1999 the state decided not to appeal the ruling. In 1996 Congress enacted a law that denied welfare, nonemergency health care, and higher education benefits to undocumented aliens.

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The large-scale emigration from Colombia in the last two decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century is sometimes referred to as the Colombian “brain drain,” since so many members of the country's educated middle and upper classes fled to escape intensifying tumult at home. During this period, the United States was the second-most popular destination for Colombian emigrants, trailing only Venezuela. Although Colombian officials said that the exodus peaked in 2000, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reports that the number of Colombians immigrating to the United States remains steady. Each year from 2002 to 2005 an average of about 19,000 Colombians legally immigrated to the United States. The number swelled to about 43,000 in 2006 and subsequently declined gradually, with 22,635 immigrants in 2011.


In the United States, the majority of Colombian American households speak both English and Spanish: a 2010 report from the Pew Hispanic Center, a national nonpartisan research organization, showed that 59 percent of Colombians in the United States spoke English proficiently. For Colombian Americans, as for other immigrants, learning English is a compelling desire, because without advanced language skills they remain ineligible for most kinds of work. Spanish, however, continues to hold a vital role in Colombian American culture, as perhaps the surest means of preserving traditions. Colombians commonly consider themselves the stewards of the most elegant Spanish spoken in Latin America, and Colombian American professionals and other members of the upper classes worry about the deterioration of Colombian Spanish in U.S. cities, where it is subject to the influences of English and the Spanish of other countries. They tend to use formal address in more situations than other Latin Americans and to call only well-known acquaintances by their first names.

In 2010, 41 percent of Colombian Americans reported speaking English “less than very well,” according to the Pew Center. These people often gravitate to Latin American networks, particularly in large cities, where there is little or no need to know English in either business or social life. Families sometimes rely on bilingual children for outside transactions. Many Colombian Americans consider Miami exceptionally hospitable, as Spanish is the second official language of government and is also used frequently in business and cultural affairs.

Together with the children of other immigrants, Colombian students are at the center of a debate about the future of bilingual education. Studies have shown that even after acquiring fairly advanced English skills, non-native speakers are unable to compete with their English-speaking classmates for several years. Some educators argue that bilingual programs are essential to help students of English as a second language build confidence and keep up with their peers. Their approach has aroused anger among Americans who believe that English should be the country's only language and consider wide use of other languages a threat to American culture.


Under Spanish rule, Roman Catholicism spread quickly throughout Colombia and displaced native religions. As a result, the majority of Colombian Americans continue to self-identify as Roman Catholics. Religious ceremonies are closely tied to important customs and traditions, such as compadrazgo, the establishment of kin networks through the choice of godparents. A child's godparents are usually the man and woman who acted as the best man and the maid of honor at the parents' wedding. The preservation of many such Latin American religious customs has been reinforced in recent years as parishes have added Spanish-language services in not only large cities but also a growing number of suburbs.

Although the church has historically been one of the few venues to offer a respite from the isolation and hostility encountered by immigrants entering American society, some churches were slow to respond to the needs of Latin American parishioners. For example, the Catholic Church in New York City was hesitant to accept Colombian Americans when they began to immigrate in notable numbers during the early to mid-twentieth century. Like other Latinos, Colombian Americans in Jackson Heights during the 1960s and 1970s were largely ignored by the local Catholic clergy, which was predominantly Irish and Italian and did not acknowledge the changing ethnicity of the neighborhood. Because few priests spoke Spanish, Latinos had difficulty obtaining information about services and programs offered by the church. Enrollment in parochial schools was a charged issue, as most parents initially failed to secure their children's enrollment because they were unaware of registration dates and the requirement to make donations at Sunday mass for a year before applying for admission.

In response to such problems, the diocese of Queens and Brooklyn sponsored the Instituto de Comunicación Internacional, a program for teaching Latin American culture and Spanish to the clergy. Some parishes sought to attract Hispanic congregants by offering masses that featured Latin American music. In Queens a few hundred Colombian Americans led by a Colombian priest established a church based on charismatic Catholicism. As of 2010, it was estimated that there were some 2,000 Hispanic churches in the New York–New Jersey metropolitan area.


Motivated by ethnic pride and a desire to circumvent legal, racial, and cultural obstacles encountered in living in the United States, Colombian Americans have traditionally maintained a distinct identity in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey, 65 percent of

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A woman originally from Colombia chants during a rally on immigration reform in Washington, D.C. Immigrant rights organizations are advocating for comprehensive immigration reform. A woman originally from Colombia chants during a rally on immigration reform in Washington, D.C. Immigrant rights organizations are advocating for comprehensive immigration reform. MARK WILSON / GETTY IMAGES

Colombians living in the United States were foreign born, compared to 37 percent of Hispanics and 13 percent of the U.S. population overall. Some new arrivals feel alienated from mainstream society, struggle with racial and economic discrimination, and seek to preserve their own culture by operating within Latin American social and economic networks as much as possible. However, many Colombian Americans also reject the notion of assuming a larger Latino identity, seeking instead to remain distinct from other Latin American groups. Because of Colombia's ethnically diverse population, which is derived from indigenous Amerindians, European immigrants, and African slaves, it is difficult to classify Colombian Americans ethnically.

In light of immigration laws that allow few to expect citizenship, many consider their stay in the United States temporary and retain strong ties to Colombia. However, Colombian Americans who are permanent residents tend to fare slightly better on average than many of their Hispanic peers. According to the Census Bureau, Colombian Americans overall have higher median incomes, higher homeownership rates, and higher education levels than other Hispanics in the United States. In addition, only 10 percent of Colombian Americans live in poverty, compared to 19.5 percent of Hispanics overall. Of the Colombian Americans who took part in the 2010 American Community Survey, 30 percent reported that they worked in management, professional, and related occupations, while another 24 percent were in sales and office support.

Since the 1970s the effort by Colombian Americans to be accepted in American society has been impeded by stereotypes associated with drug trafficking. Reports of a growing number of arrests for drug abuse and related activity in the United States during the 1980s and the escalating chaos in Colombia during that period fueled American fears that the violence and terrorism associated with drug cartels would spread to the United States. Sensationalism tinged much of the news reporting on these affairs, and since the mid-1980s stereotypes of ruthless drug lords supported by unlimited funds, sophisticated weapons, and armies of loyal thugs have captured the public's imagination. In the shadow of such characterizations, Colombian Americans found themselves objects of suspicion and experienced discrimination in housing and employment, even though by most estimates only a very small percentage engage in criminal activity.

Cuisine Traditional Colombian food varies from region to region and can be influenced by the country's many indigenous cultures as well as the European, African, Asian, and other South American groups that have settled there. Meat, stews, soups, bread, fresh fruit, and vegetables are a common part of most traditional Colombian diets. Sancocho is a popular stew that includes chicken, pork, or seafood in a broth with plantains, yucca, cilantro, corn, and potatoes. Arepa is a flatbread made from cornmeal or flour with many regional variations. Tamales (corn cakes) are also popular and boast many regional varieties. Traditional beverages include a chilled, blended drink made of milk, sugar, and a fruit known as curuba. Colombia is renowned for its coffee, which, along with petroleum, coal, and gold, is one of its main exports. In Page 525  |  Top of Articlesome areas of Colombia, roasted ants are consumed as part of traditional fare.

In Colombia's coastal regions, seafood and fresh fruit are plentiful. Ceviche (stew made from raw fish marinated in citrus juices and various spices), plantains, and arepa prepared with eggs or cheese are among the dishes commonly served along Colombia's Caribbean coast. Coconut is frequently used to flavor sauces or rice. In the mountainous Andean region near Bogotá, breakfast can consist of changua, a creamy soup made with milk and scallions; eggs are dropped into the mixture without breaking the yolks and it is often served with cilantro and bread.

Ajiaco, a hearty soup made with chicken, several varieties of potato, capers, herbs, avocado, and corn on the cob, is also popular for dinner. Beef and freshwater fish are popular in the eastern grasslands near the Venezuelan and Brazilian borders as well as in the Amazonian regions, and the meat is often barbecued on vertical spits over an open fire. In Colombia's central region, tamales are made from corn dough and filled with local vegetables, chicken, or pork. These tamales are called tamales Tolimenses after the centrally located area of Tolima.

When Colombian Americans consume traditional foods at home, their tastes may follow these regional norms. Generally speaking, the major staples of the traditional Colombian diet are also popular with Colombians in the United States. Common dishes include: various grilled meats, arepas, sancocho, empanadas (a stuffed pastry that is usually fried, not baked as Chilean or Argentine varieties are), tamales, pandebono (cheese bread), and bandeja paisa (a platter of assorted dishes, often including meat, rice, plantains, arepa, pudding, fruits, and vegetables). Colombian restaurants can be found in most major cities in the United State, ranging inexpensive cafes to fine-dining options. These restaurants offer a wide array of Colombian cuisine, but the most common features include tamales, empanadas, various meat dishes, ceviche, soups, and stews.

Holidays An important holiday for Colombian Americans is Colombian Independence Day on July 20 (celebrated on November 11 by immigrants from the Caribbean coast). The holiday is marked with traditional foods such as tamales, chorizos (fresh sausages), empanadas, Colombian coffee, arepas, and obleas (a confection made with two wafers and a layer of caramel in between). Colombian Americans also share in the celebration of other Latin American independence days and in cultural festivals held from time to time in major cities.

Dances and Songs Latin American dancing is a central activity at festivals and in local clubs. Since the late 1980s, the Colombian courtship dance known as cumbia has grown in popularity. Developed on the Caribbean coast by African slaves, it consists of intricate, restrained steps that reportedly trace the limits of the dancers' shackles. Colombian Americans keep the tradition of cumbia alive in the United States through dance and through a musical genre also called cumbia. The music, also developed by African slaves in Colombia, is in 2/4 time and performed with a button accordion, drums, maracas, and horns.

During the mid-twentieth century, Colombian music gained an international audience largely through the efforts of Antonio López Fuentes, who formed the first Colombian record company, Disco Fuentes, in 1934 and made well-received recordings of indigenous music using modern instrumentation. A music form related to cumbia, called vallenato, is still enjoyed in the United States and abroad and traditionally consists of vocals, an accordion, a cane scraper, a drum, and a curved flute. Versions of vallenato songs, put to rock instrumentation by Carlos Vives, have enjoyed tremendous success throughout the Americas. Colombian musicians tour the United States frequently, among them the accordionist Lisandro Meza and the bands such as Grupo Niche. Styles known as porro and mapale are performed to a lesser extent.

Health Issues Obtaining health care can pose a serious problem for many Colombian Americans. Those in poorly paid jobs rarely receive health benefits and cannot afford to pay for a health plan or leave their families long enough to receive treatment. In addition to these problems, undocumented immigrants are burdened with the fear that through the medical establishment their status might become known to the immigration authorities. As a result, many Colombian Americans have sought medical care only in emergencies or confined themselves to facilities available within Latin American networks.

Like other immigrants, Colombian Americans sometimes suffer from stress disorders associated with cultural adjustment. Few seek out mental health services, however, owing to long-standing taboos in Colombia against seeking help for mental illness. By the early 1990s, a few social service centers and programs catered to Latin Americans, and during the next two decades more and more health care providers began to follow suit. Today, most major cities in the United States offer bilingual medical services. Some of the first noteworthy facilities to offer support to Hispanics included La Familia in Marin County, California, and the Fordham Tremont Mental Health Center in New York City.

In 2012 Hispanic Network Magazine named the Mayo Clinic, Mount Sinai Medical Clinic, Johns Hopkins Hospital, and New York–Presbyterian University Hospital of Columbia and Cornell among the top hospitals for Hispanics in the United States. However, according to a 2008 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly one-fourth of all Hispanics in the United States are without health care. In 2012 multiple nationwide polls showed that a majority of Latinos approved of President Barack Obama's controversial plan for comprehensive nationwide health coverage.

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According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Colombian Americans are slightly more likely to be married than Hispanics overall. In 2010 the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey showed that 47 percent of Colombian Americans were married, compared to 44 percent for Hispanics overall. Historically, a focal concern for Colombian immigrants has been to preserve the traditional family structure against pressures encountered in U.S. society. Families prefer to immigrate together but have increasingly been prevented from doing so by restrictive immigration laws. They are often forced to separate for months or even years while one member, usually a parent or an older child, finds work and establishes residency before sending for the rest of the family. Undocumented immigrants sometimes go for years without seeing their families, as they cannot return to the United States if they leave.

Family networks are the primary source of aid in both Colombia and the United States. Relatives, godparents, and friends already living in the United States are often the only source of support for immigrants. They provide not only money and housing but also advice about work, legal concerns, and cultural matters. Once they are financially independent, most immigrants from Colombia remit a large portion of their salaries to family that they have left behind. On several occasions they have also united in the wake of natural disasters in Colombia. They responded quickly in 1985, for example, to a volcanic eruption in the northern part of the country that killed more than 20,000 and destroyed untold property. Through nationwide campaigns, they mounted one of the world's largest relief efforts on behalf of the volcano victims. In addition, in the wake of severe flooding in Colombia during 2011, organizations such as the Colombian Consulate in Los Angeles, the Colombian American Rotary Club, and the Colombian Press hosted fund-raisers, organized benefits, and called upon the Latino community in the United States to help rebuild Colombian communities that had been affected.

Colombian American singer Jason Castro (1987–) signs CDs in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, 2013. Colombian American singer Jason Castro (1987–) signs CDs in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, 2013. JOE QUINN / ALAMY

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Gender Roles In Colombia, traditional values define the home. The husband is the wage earner and head of the house, while the wife sets the tone of the household and rarely holds outside employment. Children are taught to obey their parents and respect authority. In the United States, families sometimes discover mainstream American life undermines the traditional roles of individuals. Lacking access to well-paid jobs, nearly all rely on two incomes to meet living expenses and are forced to adjust to the entrance of women into the workforce. In earning their own salary for the first time, women gain a measure of independence virtually unknown in Colombia and they also have more opportunities for education. By contrast, men usually have more difficulty finding work and often take more responsibility for household chores than they do in Colombia. These changes sometimes tear families apart. Despite strong cultural prohibitions, immigrants divorce far more often than their counterparts in Colombia. In other cases, families are strengthened in uniting against such pressure and transmitting traditional values to their children.

Education Colombian Americans value education highly and often move to the United States for the chance to educate their children through high school and beyond, a privilege reserved in Colombia for the wealthy. Such ready access offers a crucial advantage to immigrants from the middle and lower classes, for whom an American academic degree represents an end to the cycle of limited education and poorly paid work that inhibits economic mobility in Colombia. Some parents are, nonetheless, disappointed by U.S. public schools; they consider the curriculum lacking and are disturbed by the informal tone of the classroom, the rate of delinquency among American students, and the wide availability of drugs. They usually look to Catholic schools for an environment that emphasizes values in keeping with their own and enroll their children as soon as they can afford to do so.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 32 percent of Colombian Americans aged 25 or older had obtained at least a bachelor's degree as of 2010, which was a much higher figure than the 13 percent of Hispanics overall. An additional 35 percent of Colombian Americans aged 25 or older had graduated from high school.

Social Networks Colombian social networks are extensive and difficult to categorize. Doctors' associations in New York City and Chicago were probably the first Colombian organizations in the United States, and other professional societies soon followed. Social clubs based on regional identity became another community institution. Colombian Americans also developed strong ties with other Latinos through more informal networks. To some extent they share a common culture through Spanish-language media, which provide news, entertainment, and music from Latin America unavailable elsewhere. Social events draw immigrants from throughout Latin America and are often held at neighborhood restaurants and night-clubs. Soccer is also widely popular; many Colombian Americans take part in local games and also closely observe the fortunes of Latin American teams.


Colombian Americans move to the United States primarily to work. With the deterioration of the Colombian economy during the second half of the twentieth century, the rate of emigration increased as some sought to escape rising unemployment, underemployment, and inflation. In the United States many Colombian Americans pursued professional careers; took employment as laborers, factory workers, and domestic servants; and opened

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[In Colombia] my surroundings and the narrow-mindedness of the people always bothered me. In the United States, on the other hand, I could be myself without worrying that others would think ill of me and work at whatever was most profitable without having others think that it was degrading.

Julia de Riano, cited in Ramiro Cardona Gutiérrez's El éxodo de colombianos, 1980.

small businesses, often catering to Latin Americans. In New York City, those who could afford to buy property did so as soon as possible. As immigration restrictions tightened, however, fewer Colombian Americans planned to remain permanently in the United States, and it became more common for them to seek to work only long enough to improve their financial status before returning to Colombia, where inflation made investment and saving nearly impossible. From the 1970s through the 1990s, plans for temporary settlement were common among professionals, who in the United States found opportunities unavailable in Colombia to use their skills, earn salaries commensurate with their education, and enhance their professional standing through advanced training. In the first years of the twenty-first century, Colombian Americans had one of the highest average incomes among Latinos. Many have prospered in business, especially in ventures in Miami related to trade with Latin America.

Work is the focus of Colombian households. While men usually find their earning power diminished in the United States, women have many more opportunities than in Colombia. Despite a long-standing tradition of machismo, their husbands offer little or no resistance to their wives' employment because their salaries are needed to repay sponsors, meet daily expenses, support family members who stayed behind, and save money toward children's education, trips to Colombia, and other costs. Husbands and wives often operate small businesses together, and many people hold more than one job.

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Until the late 1990s most Colombian Americans devoted themselves primarily to politics of Colombia rather than of the United States, believing that they would not remain abroad long enough to have any impact on American politics. More recently, however, this attitude began to change in states where Colombian Americans boasted a significant population. Although many Colombian Americans continue to invest more of their attention and resources in the politics of their home country (and, as a result, have yet to harness the political force similar to Hispanic groups such Cubans and Mexican Americans) organizational efforts in the United States began to take shape during the early 2000s. According to a 2007 report from the Miami Herald newspaper, Colombian American communities in South Florida and elsewhere were beginning to flex some political muscle.

During the 1990s, Colombian American groups were organized to back two ultimately failed pieces of legislation aimed at granting thousands of undocumented Colombians the right to remain in the United States legally. In 2001, hundreds of Colombian Americans attended conferences in Atlanta and Houston hoping to set a national political agenda.

According to the Herald, Colombian Americans have elected state legislators in Florida, South Carolina, Minnesota, and Rhode Island. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush tapped a Colombian American as a Broward County court judge, and in 2009 the community of West Kendall, Florida, erected the Plaza de Colombia to commemorate Colombian American heritage. Colombian American Jorge E. Meneses was elected mayor of Hackensack, New Jersey, in 2011.

During the lead-up to the 2012 U.S. presidential election, incumbent Barack Obama began actively to court the Colombian American vote, hosting dozens of Colombian American business and community leaders at the White House for an Independence Day celebration on June 20. Although they do not yet constitute a powerful, cohesive voting bloc, the concentration of Colombian Americans in politically important swing states such as Florida could mean their political clout is on the rise.

Meanwhile, the Colombian government has begun to focus more resources on organizing and mobilizing its large expatriate community in the United States. By founding a group called Colombia Unites Us, it began sponsoring seminars for Colombian American leaders in cities such as Houston, New York, and Miami with the goal of promoting Colombian political and social issues abroad.


Business Perhaps the best-known Colombian in American business is the entrepreneur María Elena Ibanez (born in Barranquilla); after helping to manage her father's orchards as a child in 1973 she moved to Miami, where she earned a degree in computer science and later formed International High-Tech Marketing, a firm that sells computer equipment in more than 100 developing countries. Andrés Mejia is one of the world's largest suppliers of Paso Fino horses, and he maintains stables in Miami and Colombia.

Literature The works of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez (born in Aracata in 1928) were among the first from Latin America widely read by an English-speaking audience, and their critical acclaim stimulated interest in other Latin American artists. A number of Colombian writers living in the United States have also enjoyed success. Silvio Martínez Palau (born in Calí in 1954) moved to the United States in the late 1960s and published the play The English-Only Restaurant, a collection of short stories titled Made in USA, and the novel Disneylandia. The playwright Enrique Buenaventura (1925–2003) has had his work performed in several American cities; his best-known play, ¡Por mi madre que es verdad! (I Swear on My Mother's Grave), is set in the southern Bronx. Among the works of New York writer and professor Alister Ramírez Márquez is Mi vestido verde esmeralda (2006), which was published in English as My Emerald Green Dress in 2010.

Medicine Pilar Bernal de Pheils, an assistant clinical professor of nursing at the University of California, San Francisco, has promoted educational exchange programs allowing Latin American nurses to study and teach in the United States.

Music Popular musicians of Colombian decent who have found success in the United States include pop singer Soraya (1969–2006), folk musician Jason Castro (1987–), reggaetón singer-songwriter Adassa (1987–), hardcore punk vocalist Freddy Cricien (1976–), rock musician Alex González (1969–), country signer Marty Stuart (1958–), rapper Tonedeff (1978–), and hip hop DJ Rob Swift.

Performing Arts The best-known Colombian American in the performing arts is actor and comedian John Leguizamo (born in Bogotá, 1965), who has written and performed one-man comedies based on his childhood in Jackson Heights, including SpicO-Rama and Mambo Mouth. He also has appeared in the motion pictures Die Hard II and Hangin' with the Homeboys. The actor Wilmer Valderrama (1980–), who appeared on the television sitcom That '70s Show and in numerous films, is of Colombian and Venezuelan decent. Rosario Vargas helped to form the Aguijón II Theater Company, the first Spanish-language theater company in Chicago, and remains one of its artistic directors. Actress Alexa Vega (1988–) appeared in popular films such as the Spy Kids franchise, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Glimmer Man, and Twister. After hosting programs for the Spanish-language television network Univision in the late 1990s, actress Sofía Vergara (1972–) took roles in a number of television series on ABC, including

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Columbian American actor John Leguizamo (1964–) immigrated at age four with his family to the United States. Columbian American actor John Leguizamo (1964–) immigrated at age four with his family to the United States. ALBERT L. ORTEGA / GETTY IMAGES

Hot Properties (2005) and The Knights of Prosperity (2007). In 2009 she was cast in a leading role in the popular series Modern Family. Also appearing in several films and on Broadway, Vergara had by 2012 become one of the highest-paid women in television in the United States.

The dancer Ricardo Bustamante made his debut as a soloist with the American Ballet Theater in June 1989. Standup comedian Greg Giraldo (1965–2010) was a regular on television specials that aired on the Comedy Central network, and he worked with other well-known comedians such as Colin Quinn and Lewis Black.

Sports Numerous Colombian American players have starred in U.S. Major League Soccer, including Fredy Montero, Carlos Valderrama, Carlos Llamosa, Juan Agudelo, Juan Pablo Ángel, and David Ferreira. Englewood, New Jersey, native Alejandro Bedoya played for the U.S. national soccer team beginning in 2010 and professionally for several notable club teams in Europe. Colombian American Scott Gomez (from Anchorage, Alaska) was a three-time all-star in the National Hockey League and won a pair of Stanley Cup championships while playing for the New Jersey Devils during the 1999–2000 and 2002–2003 seasons. Medellín native Lou Castro in 1902 became the first Latin American player to play in Major League Baseball, paving the way for other Colombians to play baseball in the United States, including: Edgar Rentería, Orlando Cabrera, Jackie Gutierrez, and Julio Teheran. Several Colombians have also made names for themselves in auto racing, including Juan Pablo Montoya, who made the jump to NASCAR in the United States in 2007 after years of successful competition in Formula 1 racing.

Visual Arts The artist Fernando Botero (born in Medellín, 1932) has gained international renown for his paintings, drawings, and sculptures of rotund figures; after presenting his first solo exhibition of watercolors in Mexico City as a young man, he lived in New York City during the 1960s, where his painting Mona Lisa, Age 12 was shown at the Museum of Modern Art. Although decried by members of the academy, his work was enthusiastically received by a wide audience. In 1994 the city of Chicago showed seventeen of his bronze sculptures in an outdoor exhibition. Another Colombian artist who has exhibited his work widely in the United States is Enrique Gran, who was born in Panama, spent his childhood in Cartagena (Colombia), and studied painting at the Art Students League in New York City from 1940 to 1943. María Fernanda Cardoso (1963–) is known Page 530  |  Top of Articlefor her haunting sculptures dealing with violence in Colombia. Los Angeles–based artist America Martin is known for exuberant and bold paintings, often of the human form. Her paintings have been shown in galleries across the United States.


Full Text: 

Colombian American Association (CAA)

Objectives are to facilitate commerce and trade between the Republic of Colombia and the United States and to foster and advance cultural relations and goodwill between the two countries.

Christian Murrle, President
641 Lexington Avenue
Suite 1430
New York, New York 10022
Phone: (212) 233-7776

Colombian American Service Association (CASA)

Strives to develop the well-being and protect the rights of all immigrant families while providing them with the tools of self-sufficiency.

Carolina Freedman
10300 SW 72 Street
Suite 387
Miami, Florida 33173
Phone: (305) 463-7468
Fax: (305) 273-4385

Colombian American Coalition of Florida (CASA)

Seeks to empower Colombian Americans and foster civic engagement, advocacy, and cultural initiatives by working with local, state, and national organizations.

Jose L. Castillo, Chair
16275 SW 88 Street #163
Miami, Florida 33196

Colombian American Cultural Society

Seeks to preserve the traditions of the Colombian community in Rhode Island through social and community events for the purpose of uniting Colombian Americans in the state.

Monica Cortez, Secretary
504 Weeden Street
Pawtucket, Rhode Island 02860
Phone: (401) 663-3924


Antonio, Angel-Junguito. A Cry of Innocence: in Defense of Colombians. Plantation, FL: Distinctive Pub. Corp., 1993.

Birnabaum, Larry. “Colombia's Vallenato Up North,” Newsday, August 24, 1994 (Nassau and Suffolk County edition), B7.

Booth, William. “Miami Auditions for Lead in Latin American Affairs; As Leaders Gather for Summit, America's Southern Trade Hub Tries to Shed Vice-Squad Image,” Washington Post, December 9, 1994, A1.

Chaney, Elsa M. “Colombian Outpost in New York City.” In Awakening Minorities: Continuity and Change, edited by John R. Howard. 2nd ed., 67–74. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1983.

Dockterman, Daniel. “Hispanics of Colombian Origin in the United States.” Pew Research Center, May 26, 2011.

Feldman, Claudia. “It Is a Source of Irritation to Some, a Matter of Cultural Pride to Others. Either Way, It Is a Fact of Life in Houston: Spanish Spoken Here,” Houston Chronicle, November 20, 1994, 1.

Garza, Melita Marie. “Census Puts Latinos in Bittersweet Light,” Chicago Tribune, October 20, 1994, 1.

Woods, Casey. “U.S. Colombians Seek More Political Clout.” Miami Herald, September 23, 2007.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300051